A Philosopher in the Arena

A Philosopher in the Arena (Un philosophe dans l’arène) ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Directors: Aarón Fernández LesurJesus Manuel Munoz.

There have been countless films and documentaries on bullfighting, most of which mainly tended to focus on the actual matadors themselves (or bullfighters), but I don’t think I remember ever seeing anything like this: a film which takes the idea of bullfighting as a mean to talk about not just its cultural value and relevance versus how cruel and backwards it all is, but also as a starting point for a philosophic essay about the respect for our ecosystem, our biodiversity, to talk about art, life, death and our very own existence.

The film follows French professor and philosopher Francis Wolff, who happens to be a passionate fan of bullfighting too, though, as he says “Conveying a passion in impossible” so instead he’ll try “to convey his point of view”. He’s a rather strange character, even now after the film I still can’t quite tell whether I like or not. He’s certainly very good at opening up his views on bullfighting and broadening them out and comparing them to many other things I wasn’t expecting, but I have to confess I didn’t quite buy into many of his arguments. His comparisons to slaughterhouses were interesting but his comments about the fact that people are not as offended by them as they are about corridas, just because they don’t see it in the open, didn’t quite hold water for me, nor his parallels with hunting and fishing.Even the film-makers themselves seem to lose faith in him as some point as the film increasingly ends up interviewing people on things which he really should have been talking about. Because of that his personal essay/journey became slightly diluted and contaminated by the (way too many) other voices. At some point prof Wolff even questions the film-makers themselves on why they’re asking questions to the people in the street (which he calls them street philosophers) when he should be the one giving the running commentary in the film.It was a fascinating moment and I wished there had been more scenes like that one. Having the film turning against its own “main star” would have been a fascinating thng to witness, of course it would have been a different film, but then why only giving us a glimpse of that? Later on Wolff refuses to go to Barcelona with the crew, changing his mind at the last moment and forcing the film-makers to go on their own… Another hint of what they film could have been. Instead the film chooses to remain mostly neutral (probably a slightly easier choice given the kind of character Wolff is).

The documentary is mostly structured as a road movie, though the travelling device however clever and visually pleasing, feels at time a bit contrived especially when the film breaks its own rules and the journey is not followed through: in fact often we travel to a place or we build up to a an encounter with somebody or an event only to cut to the next scene straight as soon as we got there, or worse, we cut away to images from the place where we have just been. That made all that travelling rather pointless.

Having said that it is all beautifully filmed and there are some very clever and well researched moments (though watch out animal lovers… at times this is not for the squeamish).

Directors Aarón Fernández Lesur and Jesus Manuel Munoz travel from France to Spain to Mexico, throwing everything they can at the audience from great vistas, to drone shots, black and white archive, stock-footage, giving the film not just an expensive look, but also a great visual variety, in fact much greater than the actual intellectual argument it has to offer. Whether that’s a limitation of the film itself or prof Wolff I can’t tell, but I got the feeling that I was been told some of the same points over and over and I didn’t quite get a sense of progression of the argument.

All on all, there are so many interesting and tantalizing ideas in here, not all of them work and some of them are a bit repetitious, but there’s enough to make the journey worthwhile. Probably a slightly tighter film (and a tighter leash on the professor) would have helped making it feel less fragmented and keeping the argument more focused.

The film is available to watch here in French, Spanish and English:


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